There are leaders who are ahead of their times, leaders who are behind their times, and then there’s Donald Trump, who comes from another time altogether. He’s stuck somewhere closer to the Stone Age than to Stonewall. And the Supreme Court just told him so.
In a 6-to-3 decision, the justices ruled on Monday that gay and transgender people are protected by a landmark federal civil rights law. It was a stunning milestone in L.G.B.T.Q. progress. It was also a major slap at Trump, whose administration has gone perversely far out of its way not merely to halt advances during the Obama years but to turn back the clock.
The court, even with two Trump appointees, moves with the illuminated society around it. Trump just grovels before his blinkered base. And while Trump is often clueless about public opinion, the court seems to be at least loosely tethered to it, as with a 5-to-4 ruling on Thursday that nixed his intended scuttling of a program that protected immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation. In some polling, about three-quarters of Americans support that program.
“Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” Trump tweeted just after the immigration decision was handed down. I merely get the impression that a majority of the justices are sane.
It’s one of the great riddles of Trump’s presidency: how a man so spectacularly out of touch and out of sync with so many Americans could wind up ruling over us. And he falls further out of touch and more clangorously out of sync by the second.
While the rest of the country graduates from “Gone With the Wind” to “12 Years a Slave,” Trump clings to Tara tighter than Scarlett ever did. While the National Football League finally blesses many players’ desire to kneel during the national anthem, Trump still curses it.
While Juneteenth lodges ever deeper in the national consciousness — and has been mentioned, annually, in official White House statements — Trump has to have a black Secret Service agent explain it to him, as Michael Bender of The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.
“Sleepy” Joe Biden? Trump, in the midst of a great “awokening,” is Rip Van Winkle. And should he ever be roused from his culturally oblivious snooze, he’ll want meatloaf for lunch and a well-done steak for dinner. He’s an impossibly beefy man in an Impossible Burger world.
No president’s agenda and sensibility are in perfect tune with the country’s mood and the cultural zeitgeist, but Trump’s discordance is earsplitting.
As Americans came to depend on Obamacare, Trump came to kill it. As Americans grew receptive to restrictions on firearms, Trump grew submissive to the N.R.A. As Americans focused on climate change, Trump ramped up offshore drilling. He thinks that taking the contrary position makes him courageous, when really it just makes him obtuse. He’s an imagination-starved anachronism in visionary drag.
In fact I have a new theory for why he chose the running mate he did. Mike Pence, who calls his wife, Karen, “Mother,” was one of the few men in America who made Trump look positively postmodern.
And that damned wall of Trump’s, the wretched hallucination at the center of his political identity? Poll after poll show that most Americans don’t want it — not if Mexico pays for it, not if Martians pay for it, not if Trump, Pence and Javanka put on coveralls and build the monstrosity themselves. (Actually — correction — I suspect that most Americans would back that last scenario, and by a lopsided margin if Stephen Miller and Betsy DeVos joined the work crew.)
You would think that a man so unreflective of his country could never command the affections and approval of a majority of its people. And you’d be right. Trump is the product and emblem of minority rule, the ridiculously lucky beneficiary of ridiculous political circumstances.
Almost three million fewer Americans cast ballots for him than for Hillary Clinton; he received 46 percent of the popular vote. But thanks to the exigencies of the Electoral College, he won the presidency nonetheless.
Most candidates — and presidents — start to sweat when their approval rating dips below 50 percent. Trump does a jig when his gets anywhere close to it.
The Republican Senate majority that saved his presidency by acquitting him during his impeachment trial is, like him, a seriously warped mirror of the country. Republicans control the chamber not because, in aggregate, they get more votes in Senate elections. They control it because its architecture privileges less populous states, many of which lean Republican.
With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump’s clash with his own country intensified. He sporadically bristled at and raged about social lockdowns and other such cautionary measures even as most Americans supported them.
His view of recent anti-racism protests, his language about police brutality and some of his stubborn positions in regard to racial justice go against increasingly powerful currents in America, where a majority of people now embrace the Black Lives Matter movement. His refusal to rename military bases that pay tribute to men who fought for the Confederacy goes against even military leaders.
And on gay rights? He’s a study in regression. He went from shouting out L.G.B.T.Q. Americans at the Republican National Convention in 2016 (a slightly misunderstood speech, as I previously explained) to smacking us down ever since.
His administration has packed federal courts with judges hostile to gay rights. It has barred transgender Americans from enlisting in military service. It has backed Americans who, citing religious beliefs, don’t want to give L.G.B.T.Q. Americans medical care or bake us a cake. Last June, when several United States embassies requested permission to fly the rainbow flag in honor of Gay Pride, the State Department said no.
In the days just before the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on Monday, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-administration rule prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in health care. And it is the administration’s position — reiterated before the Supreme Court — that federal civil rights laws don’t and shouldn’t prevent a gay or lesbian employee from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation. The court begged to differ.
But then so do Americans — by a really big margin. According to a recent CBS poll, 82 percent of them didn’t think it should be legal to fire someone for being gay. That included 71 percent of Republicans who held that position.
One lesson of all of the discrepancies between public opinion and Trump’s opinion is that if a president persuades Americans that he (or, someday soon, she) is successfully managing the economy, there’s a lot of wiggle room to be both tyrant and troglodyte. Another, as I mentioned earlier, is that the system is at least sort of broken.
A third is that Trump traveled toward his presidential destiny not via that oft-cited escalator in Trump Tower but via a time machine. I hope he kept the batteries charged, so it’s ready, after November, to return him to the past.
Frank Buni writes for the New York Times